A guide to portable solar panels

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No matter where you go, take the power of the sun with you. Canstar Blue looks at portable solar panels – what’s available, and how much do they cost?

Portable solar panels are great for camping, boating and caravanning. Solar is self-sufficient, quiet, and best of all, it’s free – at least after you buy the panels. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all solar panels are the same. If you don’t want to be left in the dark on your next outdoor adventure, you need to know what portable solar panels are right for your needs.

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Types of portable solar panels

There are three types of solar panels:

  • Monocrystalline: These are highly-efficient panels capable of charging batteries and powering a number of small appliances. Solar panels can either come in traditional glass tiles, or built into convenient, foldable blankets (pictured).
  • Polycrystalline: These are generally weak panels with low voltage, however they operate better in low light and are cheaper than Monocrystalline panels. Polycrystalline panels charge batteries slowly, so they shouldn’t be relied on as a sole source of power for mid or high consumption appliances. Once again, these panels can be bought in solar blanket or standard tile form.
  • Amorphous (thin film): This is a flexible film of photovoltaic cells that can be rolled, bent and folded. Generally, the more flexible the system is, the less efficient it will be. Thin film panels produce very low amounts of electricity and aren’t too popular as a result.

Solar panels for camping

If you’re an essentials-style camper and you only need electricity to say, charge your phone, or run an LED light or two, then a cheap polycrystalline system or amorphous film mat should work fine. If you need a portable solar system that can do a little more heavy lifting, such as power a car-fridge or even a small TV, then you’re in the market for a stronger monocrystalline system.

Solar panels for the boat

There’s usually not much open space to lay amorphous solar mats on a boat, so you will need fixed panels attached to either the roof or the rear of the boat. As solar power is the only reliable source of electricity out on the high seas, you will want to play it safe with a quality set of monocrystalline panels.

Solar panels for 4x4s and caravans

Fixing solar panels to the roof of your vehicle means you’re collecting solar power wherever you go. If you have a car fridge or any other high-consumption vehicle appliances, then a set of monocrystalline panels is the way to go. On the other hand, if you simply want solar to keep a jump-start kit charged, then a polycrystalline set will work fine.

What are the best portable solar panels?

The ‘best’ portable solar system is of course somewhat subjective – It depends on what you prefer. For example, some of the tougher solar panels built for the harshest of Australia’s climates might not be as efficient or cost-effective as more delicate models. So instead, we’ve listed below some popular brands of solar panel to help start you on your way to finding.

  • Go Power
  • Sunforce
  • Renology
  • Goal Zero
  • Sunready
  • Wagan
  • Zamp
  • Redarc
  • Projecta

There are plenty other brands of portable solar on the market, but these are a good place to start. Most brands listed produce an array of solar systems across various types and sizes.

What portable solar panel size should I buy?

What portable solar panel size should I buy? The first hurdle facing portable solar purchasers is getting around the technical jargon. Often you will see portable solar specs advertised in watts and volts while batteries are measured in amps. But what does this mean?

Solar voltage: Basically, the ‘voltage’ describes the strength of the electricity. For example, a 24 volt portable solar system could run two 12 volt halogen light bulbs at the same time, but it would not be strong enough to power a standard 120 volt refrigerator.

Solar wattage: Watts measures how much electricity being produced. This is generally measured by how much electricity can be produced in one hour (Watt-hour). For example, a 200W portable solar panel will produce 200Wh of usable electricity.

Solar Amps: Amps is essentially the speed of flow of electricity. Generally this is how portable battery storage is measured. For example, let’s say a light bulb is 1 amp, therefore in one hour, it will consume 1 amp hour. A fully charged 100 Amp-hour battery could therefore power the light bulb for 100 hours.

Required use What size system you should buy
Charging phones, tablets, e-books etc… A small 10W, 12V solar panel will do fine. There’s no need for a solar battery, but consider purchasing a cheap power bank if you want to store power.
Some lights, laptop charger, air compressor A medium sized solar system around 40W-100W with 12 V. A battery of at least 50Ah will also be necessary.
All of the above, plus car fridge A large solar system of 160W+, 12-24V. Play it safe with a 75Ah+ battery.
All of the above, plus TV, portable air con, power tools, electric cooking appliances, hair dryers and other high-consumption appliances. Bigger will be better. Aim for 200W+, 24V solar panels. Aim for a battery of 150Ah or slightly more.

Portable solar batteries

Portable solar panels are a bit different to standard rooftop solar – the efficiency of portable solar is too low to directly power high-consumption appliances. Therefore, you need a battery to collect and pool the electricity generated by solar so you can use it later on. In most situations, you ideally want a 100Ah (Amp-hour) deep-cycle auxiliary battery. But remember that a battery is only as good as your solar panels. There’s no point purchasing a huge battery if you’re portable solar is too small to ever fully charge the battery.

Portable solar prices

A monocrystalline solar system costs between $150 and $400 on average. Small portable solar panels for charging phones and other handheld appliances will only cost between $30 and $50. Solar blankets can cost anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on size, model and any gimmicky features. A portable deep-cycle solar battery hurts the budget the most, pricing anywhere between $300 and $500.

Also be sure to factor in the costs for add-ons that may or may not be necessary for your particular system. This includes battery isolators and relays, connectors, inverters, monitors, regulators, fuse blocks and adapters. These can set you back a few hundred dollars as well.

What else to keep in mind

Unfortunately, solar panels wear out. So too does practically every other component of a portable solar setup, including the battery. After about two or three years, you will begin noticing degradation in the power output of your system. After eight or more years, your portable solar kit will hardly be useful anymore. So what can you do?

You can’t reverse the natural process of aging, but you can slow it. Portable solar panels are particularly temperamental in producing electricity, quickly wearing out your system. To prevent this, don’t skimp out on add-ons designed to protect your setup, such as solar power regulators, portable fuse boxes and boards. Proper care and maintenance of your solar system can add years to the performance of your solar system, saving you hundreds of dollars.

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